In independently-owned businesses, having a second or even third generation owner isn’t unusual. Often, as ownership passes to the next generation, the business grows while continuing to serve a similar market. Member, Tom Elzen of Jackson, Mississippi is the second-generation owner of a family business that has changed drastically from his parents’ original concept. The current business and strategy evolved as Tom recognized and adapted to change and major shifts in buying patterns.
In 1954, the senior Elzens launched a wholesale business selling ladies apparel to retailers across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. For young Tom, the entrepreneurial spirit was instilled at an early age as he was “literally raised in the business.” He recalls “I remember my first chores of sweeping and cleaning around the shop.”
In addition to exposure to the textile industry at the family business, Tom gained very targeted uniform expertise as Head Football equipment manager during his four years at Notre Dame and two years as a quartermaster officer in the Army.
While Tom was away, the family business added manufacturing of women’s sportswear to their successful wholesale operation. After the Army, Tom rejoined the firm as a sales rep in 1954. While the company continued to grow, the early 1980s brought large discount stores that began to change the retail landscape and prompted Tom to consider other options.
During this period, a Fruit of the Loom rep talked about decorated t-shirts and how that product category offered opportunities to increase business with existing customers. Tom caught the vision, and brought in Les Kershner, an industry veteran with extensive experience in ad specialty sales. This move signaled the company’s transition into promotional products and led to the purchase of a screen printing and embroidery business in 1984. The acquisition expedited a move to 100% promotional products with in-house decorating.
Tom built his business visiting local businesses, schools, and state agencies and bidding on promotional products. He remembers well when yellow pages were a prime source of leads and cold-calls were an effective way to build business. Today, referrals and word-of-mouth continue to be a primary source of growth, but Tom states that a substantial amount of business comes from his website which was developed by ASI.
While visiting a state agency for a promotional product bid and discussing decorating options, Tom discovered an opportunity to provide patches for the agency’s uniforms. During this process he stepped out of the promotional product box and offered to supply the uniforms also. By understanding his customer and seizing an opportunity, Tom won that bid, opened a whole new door of opportunity and never looked back.
He continues to build his business by looking for opportunities to solve problems for his customers. Tom says “We listen to what they want and need and then go out and find the products and solutions. Since 2000, we’ve called Universal Unilink for assistance with sourcing and we especially enjoyed working with Joe Stewart before his passing. Universal Unilink has been of great assistance in securing special pricing from suppliers who have become important to us; they’ve helped keep us competitive. “
Tom’s business has grown and diversified into two entities sharing a 10,000 square foot storefront. Mississippi Screen Print and Supply provides screen printing services to the public and wholesale printing for other Ad Specialty distributors. This company also sells screen printing supplies and equipment. Fashions Inc. is the promotional products division featuring a showroom with an extensive selection of promotional products, imagewear and uniform samples. Tom says “if they come in to see us, they are sold.”
Third generation, Thomas Elzen, Jr. has come alongside his father to help run the business along with a team including screen printers, bookkeeper, graphic designer, additional part-time help, and, of course, promotional products expert, Les Kershner is still growing business.